The 15th annual La Ruta Maya River Challenge, held between the 9th and 12th of March and one of the world’s longest canoe races, replicates an ancient Maya river trade network through the rainforests of Belize to the Caribbean seacoast and is capturing a larger audience this year due to global interest in the 2012 Maya “prophecies”, according to one long time participant.
Mick Fleming, owner and GM of the Lodge at Chaa Creek, which has been entering canoes in the gruelling race for 12 years, with his own team winning the 2002 Masters Class in 2002, said that in addition to the historical Maya link, the race also has a strong environmental significance.
“One thing we’ve always loved about La Ruta Maya is that it creates more awareness of Belize’s beautiful river system and our need to continually monitor and protect its health.
“It also has a colourful historical link, in that it traces one of the main thoroughfares for the ancient Maya of Belize and was an important trade route from the interior to the Caribbean coastline, linking the highland of what is now Guatemala to seagoing trade routes that extended north into Mexico and south to Panama and perhaps even further.
“With so much attention during 2012 on the accomplishments of the ancient Maya civilisation, La Ruta Maya presents a real opportunity to highlight this fascinating aspect of Maya history,” he said.
The La Ruta Maya runs 175 miles from San Ignacio town to Belize City, with three overnight stops at the villages of Banana Bank, Bermudian Landing and Burrell Boom. In recent years the race has attracted over 80 teams from Belize and overseas.
After the Spanish conquest of the region the Belize river system continued to be the primary means of transport, communication and commerce in Belize up until the 1940s when the Western Highway, linking Belize City to the Guatemalan border, was pushed through. The early logging trade depended on river transport, as did the chicle industry which followed. Chicle, the sap of the sapodilla tree, was the main ingredient for chewing gum and was an important export for Belize.
“When we began Chaa Creek as a small farm we depended upon the Macal River for transport to and from San Ignacio, so it has a special place in our hearts. The more people become familiar with Belize’s rivers the more they’ll come to appreciate them, and this is another reason why we feel the La Ruta Maya is important, and why we’ll be racing once again this year,” Mr Fleming said.
First entering the race with canoes from the small fleet used for their guests, Chaa Creek now builds canoes specifically for the event which, Mr Fleming said, is a labour of love and something the entire country looks forward to each year.
“It’s always a great race and falls into the ‘only in Belize’ category. The scenery is absolutely stunning, the crowds exuberant, the completion serious and the laughter constant,” Mr Fleming said.